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Seoul zeitgeist

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An aerial view of the 2024 Lovesome Festival held in Olympic Park in Songpa District, Seoul, April 28 / Yonhap

An aerial view of the 2024 Lovesome Festival held in Olympic Park in Songpa District, Seoul, April 28 / Yonhap

By Kim Ji-soo

From late April through mid-May, trees are lit in graded shades of green in South Korea. "May was the colour of new leaves" as the protagonist in Hwang Sok-yong's book "Mater 2-10" notes. The verdant hue often paints the background of scenes in director Hong Sang-soo's films, too. The greenery is a familiar phase in seasonal change in Korea, while the rising number of foreign tourists is a surprising novelty. Over 3.4 million foreign tourists visited South Korea in the first quarter, the highest figure since the outbreak of the devastating COVID-19, according to the culture ministry and the Korea Tourism Organization.

For March alone, the number of visitors per month soared to the highest, at 1.39 million, since COVID-19. The hosting of the U.S. Major League Baseball opening games, with Los Angeles Dodgers Shohei Ohtani in town, has played a key role. People are actively normalizing their lives disrupted by the recent pandemic. As the visitors spend time in Seoul and outside of it, one cannot help but wonder what aspects of generations of modern Korean life and culture appear to the visitors.

The Korean economy and culture at full-boom display is an amalgamation of history, development and lives, compressed and abbreviated. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon recently summed up the city's biggest charm as "where the past and the old mix."

At the tail-end of the so-called 386-generation, I personally muse whether they can detect the distinctive smells of Korean kimchi jjigae and the remnants of Korean barbecues lingering from the night before. These were some of the singular scents of Seoul that I remember from when entering the workforce after graduating from school — olfactory signals of sharing and camaraderie of people living amid the heyday of industrialization. What do the younger generation see? Fellow fans and consumers of K-pop and content such as "Squid Game" or overtourism?

Those who lived through Japanese occupation and the 1950–1953 Korean War must feel a cataclysmic change has occurred.

But knowing that fortune ebbs and flows, it's hard not to notice the blossoming Korean content standing jarringly along with the changes and challenges underway. The rising food prices, the warning bells ringing regarding the Korean economy and the deepening polarization of Korean society have begun to prompt subtle changes. Hearty Korean foods, traditionally made laboriously and accompanied by a slew of side dishes for example, have seen their number reduced and requests for refills have become harder to meet for customers. The only measurable comfort is in knowing that prices of food and eating out in South Korea remain relatively cheaper than in other territories. There are no tips largely, unless the server grills the meat. "Just bring your spoon" is used to characterize the Korean dining culture of the old days, in the spirit of helping each other through difficult times. But today, even family members rarely eat together as respective demanding schedules of work for parents and private cram schools for children dictate our lifestyles.

The sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots, between generations and the hyper-competitive society, brought on along with the country's affluence, have produced a mix of hate toward those standing on the other side of things, silent anger and lethargy.

Is this the new zeitgeist of our times or a phase of negative sentiments as the country comes out of the pandemic but finds a world engulfed in multiple wars and competitive capitalism? Invariably, these sentiments collectively may well determine the culture, ways of life and food. Negativity is not necessarily a bad thing. The poverty, oppression and the devastation of the Korean War along with the traditional Korean sentiment of "han" or regret have fueled a desire to rebuild our society. Is there such a role for sentiments of silent rage and lethargy?

The writer is a member of the editorial board at The Korea Times.

Kim Ji-soo


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